Haiti, Pat Robertson, and the Thin Places (by Billy Coffey)

AP Photo/Jorge Cruz

I could not help but think of my grandfather as the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake was relayed on the evening news. Could not help but wonder what he would say about what had happened. I wondered, too, what he would do. He said he would never return there and kept that promise, but in many ways his heart beat for the Haitian people. A part of me thought something on this scale might have drawn him back to the place that almost killed him. The place he warned me never to visit.

My grandfather travelled the world for most of his adult life as a missionary, visiting the remote villages and enduring the third world conditions of far-flung places not just for his love for people or even God. No, it was his love for adventure that took him behind the Iron Curtain, into Africa, and—twice—to Turkey in search of Noah’s ark.

But it was Haiti that captured his wanderlust the most, that tiny half of a tiny island that was so crowded and, back then, so forgotten. That was where he spent most of his time. He would write me letters and I would devour them, studying not just the smooth cursive handwriting but the stamp and the postmark and the envelope itself, worn and frayed as though it had passed through entire worlds to reach me.

The stories he told bordered on fantasy—villages in the grip of madmen, ritualized rape, and lives stripped bare to the point where the essentials had become excess.

He witnessed acts that defied both reason and physics performed in the name of unnamable spirits. Spoke of zombies and ghosts and curses.

Haiti was a place of wildness, he wrote. And it was also full of the most beautiful and caring people he’d ever met.

Yet twice he had been threatened by voodoo priests who saw his presence in their villages as a threat to their authority. Twice he escaped. He was a smart one, my grandfather. And no doubt protected by powers greater than darkness.

It was on a mission trip there in the mid-eighties that he disappeared. Authorities found his Jeep abandoned in the middle of a field. There were no footprints or tire tracks. No witnesses. The State Department was contacted, who then reached out to the American embassy. For three days our family waited and prayed for news.

On that third day my grandfather walked into a village sixty miles from where he’d last been seen, confused and shaken but otherwise in good health. He was questioned by both the Haitian police and the State Department, but those interviews proved fruitless. My grandfather never told them where he had been or what had happened. Never told his family, either. And he never returned to Haiti.

A few weeks before he died he pulled me aside during a family meal for questions that were short and ordinary—how’s school? Baseball? Are you still praying every day? He nodded and smiled, satisfied. And then his face grew serious, almost fearful, and he spoke to me the last words I’d ever hear him say:

“The world is a wonderful place, Billy. You should see as much of it as you can. But never go to Haiti. Promise me.”

I did. I still do.

I suppose if anyone would know the truth (or lack thereof) of what Pat Robertson said last week, it would be my grandfather. I’m sorry he’s gone. Sorrier today. But I’ve spent the better part of today remembering those letters and the way he talked about the Haitians, and I know what he would have said.

He would have said there are people who like the idea of a vengeful God as long as that vengeance is directed at someone else. He would have also said that Christianity is best defined not by what its adherents should believe, but what they do with that belief. It’s the love they display and the help they provide, regardless of where that love and help is needed.

He would have indeed said that Haiti has its evils. There are thin places in this world where other worlds meet and linger, and those are the places that must be tread upon lightly. Haiti is a thin place. But he would also say there are thin places within each of us as well, where good and evil clash and struggle.

Yes, he would say, Haiti is dark. But so are we.


To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at at his website and follow him on the twitter at @billycoffey.


And to read ways you can help with the relief and rescue effort in Haiti, please visit my friend Maurenn Doallas at Writing without Paper

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39 Responses to “Haiti, Pat Robertson, and the Thin Places (by Billy Coffey)”

  1. BeckeyZ January 18, 2010 at 2:43 am #


    Sounds like you and your Grandpa had a very special relationship.

    Thank you Billy, for making me think.

  2. Elizabeth Mahlou January 18, 2010 at 2:54 am #

    >What a very interesting, thought-provoking post!

  3. Denise January 18, 2010 at 3:46 am #

    >Bless you for sharing this powerful post.

  4. Glynn January 18, 2010 at 8:29 am #

    >When he was 15, my oldest son went with a high school group on a mission trip to Haiti. He adored the people and the children he met. But he also said that, at night, you could hear the drums in the high hills — the voodoo drums.

    Yes, that light and darkness is ina ll of us.

  5. sherri January 18, 2010 at 8:56 am #

    >Amazing story Billy, and yes, we all have darkness in us as well.

    My heart is heavy for the people of Haiti. I cannot get them out of my mind.
    I have been given the opportunity to go there, and I have begun the process. The country and situation is full of EVERYTHING I am afraid of, but at this point, my desire to go is stronger than my many fears. It is beyond my control really. My friend has been going there for over 10 years, has adopted a beautiful Haitian girl and works closely with a couple of agencies/ministries there. She gave up her career as a SCIENTIST to become a Humanitarian.
    As you stated, the conditions there even BEFORE the earthquake were unthinkable…and now, I don't think any of us can wrap our minds around it.

    We can all do something: Pray. Help spread the word- keeping their plight on the minds of others- give financially to a deserving organization- support an orphan financially-send needed items-adopt a child-(One of One MILLION orphans BEFORE the earthquake!)

    SO many ways to help these people.

    "Dare to reach out your hand into the darkness, to pull another hand into the light." ~Norman B. Rice

  6. Maureen January 18, 2010 at 9:10 am #

    >To give of oneself to those in need is to give hope. To pray is to act is to give hope.

    They are human. They have need. Need that is beyond the comprehensible.

    Thank you for using your blog to ask that everyone Remember Haiti.

    Thank you for citing my blogpost.

  7. Cynthia Schuerr January 18, 2010 at 9:22 am #

    >This is a very personal and emotional view of Haiti. Well written, Billy.
    Thank you Katie!

  8. Kelly Langner Sauer January 18, 2010 at 9:51 am #

    >What an incredible story. With an incredible conclusion. I know those thin places of which you speak…

  9. Tina Dee Books January 18, 2010 at 10:10 am #

    >I'm so glad one of the thinner places that has come to be over the last several days is the one between God's love and the people of Haiti. I see us reaching out in love and God's people being the first hand reaching out to those folks who so desperately need a hand up.

    I love that though your grandfather didn't go back, but that this might have pulled him back, as he sounds like he had a deep passion for the people.

    Maybe his body wouldn't go back, but it sounds like his heart for the people never left.

    Thank you, Billy.

  10. Tina Dee Books January 18, 2010 at 10:13 am #

    >Sherri, I love your quote at the end of your comment. I didn't see it until after I hit the button for my comment to post.

    One million orphans before the quake? My goodness…

  11. Doug Spurling January 18, 2010 at 10:34 am #

    >In a way, through you, grandfather got to say what he wanted.

    God has given you a voice my friend. It's a good voice. Let it echo throughout the world.

  12. Bonnie Gray January 18, 2010 at 10:51 am #

    >"lives stripped bare to the point where the essentials had become excess.'

    You have a way with words that lead us to have a glimpse of poverty. This is an incredible story you told.

    You have an amazing grandfather – another piece of the Coffey faith lineage that speak to you– and to us today. I wish I could have met him.

  13. Marni January 18, 2010 at 11:24 am #

    >Billy that was so powerful. I can't fathom what your grandfather saw or experienced…I've seen mere glimpses of darkness in this world and those were enough to haunt me. But trying to understand what he saw, as a missionary sold out to bringing the light to the darkness, I imagine he experienced some terrifying spiritual warfare.

    I've understood Haiti to be a dark place. Pat Robertson might have a point, but his message is so grace-less, so it's hard to give it any credibility. All I know is that now, God is getting glory from Haiti. And now Haiti will be on our radar just a Myanmar amd New Orleans is now on our radar. We will remember them and keep praying for them and keep giving God the glory for His presence there.

    This was amazing Billy. Thank you so much for the blessing this post was to me.

  14. S. Etole January 18, 2010 at 12:18 pm #

    >truth and balance meet here … thank you

  15. Steph @Red Clay Diaries January 18, 2010 at 1:01 pm #

    >Billy, what a grace-filled post. Most either dismiss Robertson or rant in agreement. You managed to mine the truth that might be found deep within his graceless words.

  16. Joanne Sher January 18, 2010 at 1:33 pm #

    >Brought tears to my eyes. What a moving post. Thank you Billy, for this different, and thought-provoking, perspective.

  17. Bridget Chumbley January 18, 2010 at 2:42 pm #

    >Wow, Billy. This is powerful and I'm so glad you shared it!

  18. T. Anne January 18, 2010 at 2:50 pm #

    >Moving and powerful. I'm so glad you shared this. My heart goes out to those people. You grandfather's story is potent, as are our prayers with our God. It makes me feel like I'm doing something.

  19. Rebecca on The Homefront January 18, 2010 at 2:56 pm #

    >Thank you for a post to ponder…there are certainly thin places in each of us. Amazingly written, Billy, thanks for sharing your thoughts during a difficult time.

  20. Marla Taviano January 18, 2010 at 3:57 pm #

    >Whoa. I'll be looking up your grandpa when I get to Heaven.

  21. lisasmith January 18, 2010 at 4:31 pm #

    >what a moving story. i will continue to pray for Haiti and look for ways to help. thanks, guys.

  22. sharilyn January 18, 2010 at 5:07 pm #

    >a very powerful post, billy… not ignoring the evil that exists yet encouraging to view it (and people!) as God would have us do… above all, we know He loves the Haitian people just as much as us Americans!

    and, oh so true, are we not in our own ways just as dark on the inside of the beautifully polished cup we each present to others?!

  23. Missy January 18, 2010 at 6:23 pm #

    >This is by far, the best post I have seen written on Haiti. You have put into words the thoughts that many of us Christians are having, but you did it tactfully and eloquently.

    Thank you for this.

  24. Annie K January 18, 2010 at 7:07 pm #

    >From the time I was a little girl and well into my teens, I corresponded with a missionary in Haiti. I still have the gifts she sent me over the years as well as the letters that were filled with incredible stories of poverty, survival and hope.

    Great post Billy.

  25. Terra January 18, 2010 at 8:29 pm #

    >"Yes, he would say, Haiti is dark. But so are we."
    This is a stunning piece of writing by you, and a rare glimpse of what your grandpa learned and taps into deep things.
    Thank you for writing each and every word of this post Billy.

  26. Corinne January 18, 2010 at 9:27 pm #

    >I think this is one of my favorites of yours. Thank you for this. Your grandfather sounds like an interesting, and wonderful, man.

  27. Elaina M. Avalos January 18, 2010 at 11:15 pm #

    >Such a powerful post. Thank you for sharing.

  28. Rosslyn Elliott January 19, 2010 at 1:04 am #

    >Billy, I really admire this post, in part for its terrific craftsmanship, but mostly for its content. Your courage to say what isn't conventional sets you apart from others. There are many excellent writers out there, but few who can be completely honest.

  29. cindyhan111 January 19, 2010 at 1:27 am #

    you continue to move me. yes. is all I can say. keep moving people.

  30. nAncY January 19, 2010 at 1:59 am #

    >good to hear your grandpa's words and yours.

  31. Bina January 19, 2010 at 2:09 pm #

    >Wow!! Very powerful…he sounds like a wonderful man!!

  32. jasonS January 19, 2010 at 2:32 pm #

    >Very interesting and as was mentioned, thought-provoking. Thanks Billy.

  33. Jeanne Damoff January 19, 2010 at 4:13 pm #

    >Thanks for this, Billy. I could say a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff, but I'll just leave it at a very heartfelt thank you. What you wrote here needed to be said.


  34. L.T. Elliot January 19, 2010 at 6:07 pm #

    >You rock, Billy. I can't believe your skill and I have chills from reading that.
    What a powerful message.

  35. Fatha Frank January 19, 2010 at 6:58 pm #

    >Very powerful. I am ashamed to admit that outside of the news reports all I know of Haiti is the vodoo-image of James Bond's Live and Let Die. But I agree with you about the "thin places".

    That said, I think looking at this as an outpouring of God's wrath is too narrow. Instead we can look at it as an opportunity to disply God's love. A few years ago there was a big earthquake in Iran. The first charitable responders? Christian aid organizations? We may not see the fruit of this labor in our lifetimes, but seeds are being sown.

  36. Daveda January 19, 2010 at 8:32 pm #

    >Wonderful post! Thank you.

  37. Cindy January 19, 2010 at 9:18 pm #

    >All I can say is, wow… incredibly powerful. I'm very touched by your grandfather's words of wisdom and love with no judgment.

  38. SUNRISE SISTER January 21, 2010 at 8:49 pm #

    >Yes, a truly powerful post. The darkness that lies in all of us is sometimes just a "hidden" place from the world, other times a not so hidden place that emits evil and hatred – sometimes silently and sometimes aloud. I think as a curious person I would itch to know what you grandfather experienced or endured but also I know that I would, like you have, respect his words and believe there was wisdom in them. Thanks for sharing your words.

  39. TheEclecticElement January 25, 2010 at 2:59 am #

    >This is such a beautiful and heavy post-To know someone who experiences something like that is truly something powerful, indeed. It really makes you stop and think about things-Ponder the life we are living and the lives of those far away.
    Thank you for sharing this with us all! It's very inspiring.

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